Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
We may earn a commission from links on this page

Notes On Mad Men

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Having caught up with the final two episodes of Mad Men's first season over the weekend, here are some unsorted thoughts on the season as a whole. (Spoilers ahead for those planning to catch up with Mad Men on DVD; and since I'll be referring to characters by their first name without really explaining who they are, probably only those who've watched the show need read any further.)…

-I know some people have never been able to get past the shtickiness of Mad Men's "Hey look, it's 1960!" approach–that "see how they smoke!" "see how they drink!" "see how they wear suits and ties and pretty frocks!" wink-and-nudge that mostly peaked in episode one–but the gimmick is part of the show's overarching theme. The liquor in every glass and the smoke in every room seep through these characters' finery like a poison. And as the brandishing of the surgeon general's report in the first episode indicates, none of these people can claim to be innocent of what their vices are doing to them. Roger's heart attack at midseason is just one of many examples during the season of chickens coming home to roost.

-How perfect was it that Pete learns Don's big secret–part of it anyway–by receiving a package not meant for him? In a show that's largely about people who aren't who they say they are, Pete can only catch a break when someone from the mail room mistakes him for Don.

-Mad Men's first season had a few slightly off episodes–like "Red In The Face," where Don emasculates Roger by causing him to vomit on a potential client, and "Shoot," where Pete gets into a fight over Peggy and Don prevents Betty from resuming her modeling career–but there aren't that many shows like Mad Men where I can read an episode title and feel an instant chill. For example, "5G," with the title referring to a dollar amount and an apartment number; and "The Hobo Code," where we learn the symbol that tells a drifter "a dishonest man lives here." And does any episode title describe Mad Men as well as "Nixon Vs. Kennedy?" (Which reminds me of another fine use of plot-as-theme: The whole Sterling-Cooper staff parties through the 1960 presedential election night, then wakes up with a hangover that should last, oh, the next 20 years or so.)

-I agree with some of Mad Men's detractors that the show can a little on-the-nose about some subjects. Gender in particular. I've no doubt that men in Manhattan offices in 1960 treated women like objects, maybe even to the point of tackling a secretary during a party and asking, "What color panties are you wearing?" But the gender politics of Mad Men conform so much to the stereotypes of the era that it's hard to trust them as "true." So don't. The show works either way. To get caught up in whether Mad Men is "accurate" about its period is to fixate on a virtual irrelevancy. In a broad sense, Mad Men has a lot to say about a changing America in the mid-20th century, and it has a lot of keen period detail, too. But it's more about illusions, compromises and second chances–all timeless concepts, explored as much through metaphor as through specific socio-historical incident. Rather than groaning at the revelation in the finale that Peggy is pregnant–seemingly a clunky way to set up the career-versus-family divide that nearly derailed feminism before it really got started–think of this development as symbolic. The season opens with Peggy at the gynecologist, getting a birth control prescription, and it ends with her delivering a baby. In every sense, she's becoming what she may never have meant to be.

-On-the-nose or not, Christina Hendricks' performance as imperious office slut Joan was never less than a marvel, especially towards the end of the season, when the extent of her melancholy affair with Roger was revealed.

-Having recently watched Ken Burns' The War and read David Halberstam's The Coldest Winter, I can't help but think that Don Draper/Dick Whitman's Korean War service isn't just a plot point but a character-definer. Don/Dick would've been one of those boys who joined up expecting to be a part of the world-beating, can-do U.S. Army of World War II, only to find an under-manned, under-equipped, ineffectively bureaucrat-icized military. The goods he bought were not what he'd been sold.

-More media synchronicity: I recently watched a documentary about influential art collector Sam Wagstaff, who worked on Madison Avenue in the '50s. At the time, people with an artistic bent who came from a family of means used advertising jobs a way to satisfy their parents' nagging that they needed to make a respectable living. But it was a "settling" move. No wonder so many of the staffers at Sterling-Cooper have a novel or a play gathering dust in their desk drawers.

-Much like The Sopranos, Mad Men creates a world that's chilly and more than a little dangerous, and yet also a kind of fantasyland. It's cetainly inviting for an hour a week, if no more.

-If the Coach/Mrs. Coach marriage on Friday Night Lights is one of the healthiest and most believable in TV history, the Don/Betty marriage on Mad Men may be one of the weirdest. (It's almost hard to grasp that they have two kids.) Some aspects of their relationship strain credulity–for example, I've never bought that Don cared enough about Betty to ring up her psychiatrist after every session–but the fact of their marriage anchors the show. Don runs away from his podunk upbringing and makes himself over as the era's ideal of success: Well-paying job, big house in the 'burbs, trophy wife, mistress on the side, and so on. And yet, like pretty much every one of his co-workers, none of this satisfies. He's living out one of his ads, with the world at his feet, but it's just not cutting it.

-The Perils Of Serialization: Ideas that go nowhere. The divorcée neighbor character, while providing a couple of good scenes early in the season, never really pays off. Perhaps in season two.

-Few TV critics covered Mad Men as astutely as my friend Andrew Johnston, who wrote about the show each week for Matt Zoller Seitz's essential film/TV blog "The House Next Door." In fact, don't read any more of my disconnected rambling. Go here, then work your way back through Andrew's posts.

-Another way Mad Men is like The Sopranos (beyond the creative guidance of Matthew Weiner): It's one of the quietest shows on TV, with almost no music underscoring the conversations or easing transitions.

-My third favorite scene of the season: The flashback to Don on the train, escorting the coffin that's supposed to contain his remains, and hearing from a sympathetic passenger, "Forget that boy in the box." The moment is like a waking dream, and a perfect way to describe what so many of us try to do as part of growing up: to bury our embarrassing old selves and be reborn as someone as attractive, confident and mysterious as Don Draper.

-My second favorite scene: In the boardroom, pitching the idea of an "executive account" to a bank manager, Don briefly gets a look of disgust on his face when the client goes for it in a big way. The whole idea of the account is to cover up indiscretions that wives shouldn't know about, and it's obvious that part of Don is hoping that the client will find this idea morally repellent and try to restore some order to a corporate world quickly tilting out of balance. But just like later in the season, when Pete spills Don's dual identity secret to Bert, Don discovers that cashflow blows past ethics every time.

-My favorite scene: Back in the boardroom, pitching Kodak on "The Carousel" slide projector–not "The Wheel," as the episode is pointedly called–Don describes the difference between the newness that advertising tries to sell and the nostalgia that it simultaneously tries to speak to. In addition to encapsulating one of the key themes of the series, Don's speech sums up a lot of Mad Men's appeal. It's at once a classic TV drama with a sense of retro style and a sophisticated one in look and tone, on the cutting edge of elliptical television storytelling in the same manner as The Sopranos and The Wire. Mad Men is only a perfect show in that forgiving TV realm where 80% is as good as perfect. But I'm ecstatic that it's been renewed for a second season, because with this cast, these writers, and this premise, next year Mad Men might clear 90.

Update: Here's the "carousel scene," found on YouTube thanks to PopCandy: